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Sold into holiday bondage with Booda

DAVID SILVA

The first of two parts.

One December, when I was 9, my mother decided I would spend

Christmas alone with an 80-year-old Puerto Rican woman named Booda.

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Booda used to live down the street from us with her husband, and

would baby-sit my brothers and me from time to time to allow Mom to

run errands. This had been a tremendous help, and my mother is

someone who never forgets a good turn.

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So when she learned through the grapevine that Booda’s husband had

died and that she would be all alone on Christmas in her tiny

apartment in Long Beach, Mom decided it was time to pay her debt.

“Davey, I want you to spend Christmas over at Booda’s house,” Mom

told me one morning over breakfast. The spoonful of Cream of Wheat

that I was about to shove in my mouth stopped in mid-air.

“Wha ... ?”

“You heard me. That poor woman is all by herself. It would be a

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sin to let her spend Christmas with no one to talk to. So on

Christmas Eve, we’re going to drive out there, and you’re going to

stay with her a couple of days to keep her company.”

The Cream of Wheat remained suspended in front of me. I looked

over at my brothers, who pretended not to be following any of this so

as not to call attention to themselves and possibly be snared into my

fate.

“But ...”

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“Oh, don’t give me that! It’ll be good for you to do something

nice at Christmas for a change. I’ve already called Booda, and it’s

all settled. Now eat your Cream of Wheat.”

I sat the spoon down on my plate. Had this been some ordinary

inconvenience my mother was famous for throwing my way, like telling

me I had to rake the yard instead of catch a movie with my friends,

right here would have been when I started to pound my fist on the

table and weep and beg Mom to change her mind. But this wasn’t some

ordinary inconvenience. It was madness.

For my mother to tell me that I had to give up Christmas, the one

time of the year that God himself had set aside for me to play with

my new toys, and worse, that I had to give it up in order to spend

two days trapped in a tiny apartment with an 80-year old woman --

well, it was just madness.

It was so beyond the pale, in fact, that when I looked into my

mother’s eyes and realized she was dead serious, something inside of

me snapped. My mind flat-out refused to believe what was happening.

So instead of screaming and hollering, I simply picked my spoon up

and finished my Cream of Wheat.

On Christmas Eve, I walked into my room to find Mom packing an

overnight bag for me. “What are you doing, Mom?” I asked.

“What do you mean, what am I doing? I’m packing your things so you

can go to Booda’s.”

“No, seriously, Mom, what are you doing?”

An hour later, my parents herded me into the old Rambler and drove

out toward Long Beach. “Hey, are we going to the beach?” I asked

brightly when we pulled onto the freeway.

“No, mijo, we’re taking you to Booda’s.”

“No, really, Mom, are we going to the beach?”

It wasn’t until we actually got to Booda’s apartment and the old

woman came rushing out and hugged my mother and praised her kind soul

in rapid-fire Spanish that I finally realized it was true. I was

being sold into bondage so my mother could repay her debt.

Booda was a short, solidly built woman who wore her silver hair

pulled back in a bun so tight it stretched her facial features in a

kind of low-tech face-lift.

“Ay, que lindo, Dolores!” she said to Mom while pinching my cheeks

and exclaiming how big I’d grown.

“Yeah, tell me about it. I’m the one who has to feed him,” Mom

smiled. “It’s good to see you, Booda. I was so sorry to hear about

your husband.”

“Oy jess, so teddiboh,” Booda put her head down and crossed

herself. “He jis wid de sayunts now, wading ford me to yoin him.”

Booda had lived in California for more than 30 years. But like the

island from which she came, the English language had managed to

attain only commonwealth status on her tongue. Her words tripped and

stumbled over themselves until they came out of her mouth in a tangle

of trills and hard consonants.

Of course, none of this would have been a problem had I ever

bothered to learn Spanish.

Booda reached up and patted me on the head, asking me if I was

happy to be spending Christmas with her. Or so I would gather later

-- it took me awhile to get used to her thick accent.

“I’m sorry,” I answered. “I don’t understand a word ...”

“Oh, it’s all he could talk about, Booda!” Mom cut in, pinching my

arm hard. “When I told him he’d be coming, you should have seen the

look on his face!”

Booda smiled at me and said I was a good boy. That, I understood.

“Dolores, joo wan to coin insight an haff chum cafe?”

That, I didn’t. But my mother did, and said, “Oh, no, thank you,

Booda, Louie’s waiting for me in the car.”

Mom handed me my overnight bag. She sensed -- correctly -- that I

was about to make a dash for the Rambler, and wanted to get away

before a scene was made.

“Now you go inside now, Davey -- I know you’re dying to see

Booda’s apartment,” she said, pulling my clenched hand off her dress.

“You behave yourself! It was good to see you, Booda. Merry

Christmas!”

Booda wished her a Merry Christmas and kissed her cheek. And with

that, Mom rushed off. Booda asked me to come inside, and that she’d

make me some food.

Shrugging my shoulders like a condemned man resigned to the

gallows, I followed her inside.

Nothing smells funnier to a 9-year-old Angeleno than an

80-year-old Puerto Rican woman’s apartment. Today such a smell would

evoke loving memories of my grandfather’s den, would recall the fine

tastes of my grandmother’s cooking. At 9, the smell almost made me

gag. Everything -- the flower-print antique couch, the

black-and-white television with the 6-inch screen, the mahogany

Victrola sitting in the corner -- seemed to reek of bay leaves and

fried fish.

Lining every wall in the room were paintings of Jesus and the pope

and the saints, with a few photographs of Booda’s husband mixed in.

As Booda busied herself in the kitchen, I ran to the front window

and stared forlornly as my parents’ car pulled away. I put both hands

on the glass and pressed my face against it.

“Dahvee! Coin here!” Booda called from the kitchen. “Coin here an’

tell Booda how choo liked chur feesh!”

Next week: Losing my will to live, and loving Booda.

* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident, is a Times Community News

editor. Reach him at (909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at

david.silva@latimes.com.


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